What a surprise celebration in the hospital taught me about self-care

As I mentioned, my friends and family featured prominently in my Reasons to Fight list. And for good reason: throughout my cancer treatment, they stepped up time and time again to help me. One incident in particular stands out.

During my stay at the hospital in March 2008, I discovered how dealing with a major life obstacle can become all-consuming. Throughout the month, I would eat, sleep and breathe cancer.

When I wasn’t receiving chemotherapy, I was thinking about it. It’s hard not to. Hooked up to a whirring and beeping IV machine 24/7, my circumstances quite literally followed me around. From my blood counts written on the whiteboard each morning to the vitals checks multiple times a day, leukemia crept into my every moment.

In fact, I became so preoccupied with my cancer that I almost forgot that it was my 28th birthday at the end of the month. Stuck in isolation, I was disappointed that I wouldn’t be able go out and party with my friends.

But true to their awesomeness, my loved ones brought the party to me.

On the street below my hospital window, a mob of more friends and family than I realized I had gathered to perform a surprise human art show. 

Set to the tune of “Eye of the Tiger,” they ran around the cordoned-off street, pulling off an amazing choreographed routine.

From high above on the 15th floor, I watched them use their bodies and colourful umbrellas to spell out words like “happy birthday” and morph themselves into a birthday cake, fireworks and more.

Little did I know that their kindness would do more than put me in an amazing mood.

The next morning, my nurse came into my room to check my weight and vitals. “You need to have more birthday parties,” she said cheerily. She then proceeded to write down the day’s blood counts, which had taken a healthy jump in the right direction since the epic flash mob.

Sure, it’s entirely possible it was just a coincidence. But I like to think that the boost to my physical health had a lot to do with the boost to my spirits. At the very least, it helped quiet the beehive in my brain and untwist my anxious gut, making it easier to get a decent night’s sleep, eat more food at dinner and build my strength up for the next round of chemo. 

My surprise birthday flash mob reminded me how crucial it is to come up for air once in a while. Indeed, a break from the incessant worrying and obsessing was just what the doctor ordered. (Well, a potent combination of asparaginase, vincristine and dexamethasone was what the doctor actually ordered. But you know what I mean.)

Overcoming obstacles takes a lot of hard work. But no one has an infinite supply of energy. And that’s why balancing great effort with beneficial pause is so important.

Breaks allow you to regroup and recharge your mental, emotional and physical batteries. They’re an opportunity to check the map and think strategically about the direction you’re taking. And stepping back from the one-foot-in-front-of-the-other grind lets you take stock of the bigger picture and remind yourself of what you’re trying to accomplish.

I could only bury my head in literature about leukemia for so long before I needed a break. So when I found my brain endlessly obsessing about my situation, I’d distract myself with some light reading, a movie or some video games. Meanwhile, when my friends came for a visit, I would definitely give them an update them about my health. But we always made sure to balance those heavier conversations with small talk about the latest gossip. Or lighthearted debates about who would win in a fight between Batman and Iron Man (the answer is clearly Batman). 

Building in breaks

Navigating obstacles can be a long and difficult process. Don’t forget to take breaks along the way. Here are a few ideas to consider:

Practise deep breathing — A good way to get out of your head is to focus on your breathing. Inhale through your nose for a count of four, hold your breath for seven counts, and slowly blow out through your mouth for eight counts. Repeat this four times in a row twice a day.

Switch off the guilt — Don’t beat yourself up for wanting to take a break. Breaks not only let you restore your energy, but a change in scenery can also get the problem-solving juices flowing. Stepping away from your laptop to grab a snack can be exactly what your brain needs to find the solution you’ve been looking for.

Get out of Dodge — Going on a personal retreat can give you the peace and perspective you need to tackle an obstacle. Pack your bags, get out of town and embrace the clarity that solitude and new surroundings can bring.

Socialize — Even if it’s just a half-hour coffee date with an old friend, force yourself to get out of your head and your house. Yes, there’s so much to do. But spending time with loved ones can help you keep things in perspective and can leave you feeling re-energized.

Get outside — It’s amazing how simple things like a little fresh air and sunshine can improve your mood. Exercise is another important way to get the endorphins flowing, stay positive and boost your energy.

Next: Chapter 35 — The goodbye: What a man named Frank taught me about luck

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Did you know? This resource is also available as a print book called “Simply Blunderful: A cancer survivor’s illustrated guide to flaming tennis balls, camping catastrophes and the many obstacles life throws our way.” Click here to learn more and order your copy.

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Chapter 1 — The coin flip: What a cancer diagnosis taught me about life exploding into a bazillion pieces

Chapter 2 — The slip-up: What a puddle of puke taught me about asking for help

Chapter 3 — The Great Burning: What a million paper monsters taught me about things going up in smoke

Chapter 4 — The crayon candle: What the lamest science project ever taught me about putting in the extra effort

Chapter 5 — The Christmas concert: What starring as a tree taught me about finding my voice

Chapter 6 — The “Super Something:” What blood and glue fumes taught me about vulnerability

Chapter 7 — The dare: What wearing a clay helmet taught me about bad habits

Chapter 8 — The cannonball: What Meghan in the mud taught me about letting go

Chapter 9 — The fireball: What a flaming tennis ball taught me about nurturing imagination

Chapter 10 — The frying pan: What towel-snapping taboos taught me about pushing your luck

Chapter 11 — The haybale: What a tough day in the barn taught me about having someone to watch your back

Chapter 12 — The babysitting gig: What banshee babies and buttered butts taught me about failing forward

Chapter 13 — The sledgehammer: What a construction job taught me about using the right tools

Chapter 14 — The cement truck: What a misguided act of heroism taught me about good intentions

Chapter 15 — The valet: What a parking disaster taught me about overconfidence

Chapter 16 — The growl: What a wolf in the woods taught me about knowledge and responsibility

Chapter 17 — The shortcut: What a hike through stinging nettles taught me about cutting corners

Chapter 18 — The backpack: What a giant duffel bag taught me about band-aid solutions

Chapter 19 — The big freeze: What camping in a snowstorm taught me about knowing when to quit

Chapter 20 — The snowy gauntlet: What an idiotic bet taught me about redefining success

Chapter 21 — The Christmas tree: What a holiday hunt taught me about overkill

Chapter 22 — The BB gun: What my dad getting shot in the eye taught me about owning up to our mistakes

Chapter 23 — The toboggan hill: What sledding battles taught me about approaching problems from different angles

Chapter 24 — The train: What a trip to the big city taught me about self-sabotage

Chapter 25 — The mushy cauliflower: What dinner in France taught me about the power of words

Chapter 26 — The shopping cart: What an unusual ride to the bar taught me about control

Chapter 27 — The butt clay: What a muddy gully battle taught me about karma

Chapter 28 — The president: What Bill Clinton getting in my way taught me about adaptability

Chapter 29 — The Taipei middle way: What a hostile hostel taught me about moderation

Chapter 30 — The refugee camp: What volunteering in Ghana taught me about digging deeper

Chapter 31 — The bus ride: What a long drive through the mountains taught me about patience

Chapter 32 — The barn: What a Christmas sleepover taught me about keeping your fires stoked

Chapter 33 — The list: What farts and sandwiches taught me about gratitude

Chapter 34 — The birthday: What a surprise celebration in the hospital taught me about self-care

Chapter 35 — The goodbye: What a man named Frank taught me about luck

Chapter 36 — The bloody transformation: What going from negative to positive taught me about change

Chapter 37 — The school of hard knocks: What life’s misadventures taught me about blunderful resilience